Korean manufacturers like Kia Motors Co. and its parent Hyundai Motor Co. are slipping into more and more automotive segments, from sport-utility vehicles to near-luxury sedans. But their bread-and-butter products continue to be small cars that provide basic transportation for buyers on a budget. Sometimes those small cars can get pretty glitzy-looking. Take the new Kia Spectra, a hatchback companion to the Kia Sephia with a base price of just under $11,000 and a front end that appears to be a direct steal from last year's Ford Taurus. The Spectra is going head to head with such world-class small cars as the Ford Focus. We tested a loaded Spectra GSX with only four options, including a CD player and cruise control, that priced out at $14,304.

Despite what appears to be an attractive sticker, we both agreed that smart shoppers will leave the Spectra near the bottom of their must-have lists.

He: My impression a week after driving the Spectra is pretty much the same as it was before I ever set foot in the car. This is not a good-looking vehicle. And it doesn't have any truly unique features to set it apart from the competition except perhaps for its four-door hatchback body style, which isn't wildly popular in the U.S. After spending some time in the Spectra, however, I have to give Kia credit for raising the bar on quality. This compact is nicely finished in most respects, with no glaring gaffes or misfits. It's just not terribly exciting to drive.

She: I'm really disappointed. I pulled the "Revised Women's Dictionary" off the Internet to help us write these columns. For example, the dictionary translates the phrase "you have to learn to communicate" to "just agree with me." And "be romantic; turn out the lights" to "I have flabby thighs." But I guess when it comes to the Spectra, we don't need help. We pretty much agree. But I was a little more forgiving than you on the rating because of the quality improvements.

He: Sounds to me like we're talking the same language. I was going back over our test-drive worksheet, and noticed some oddities. I thought the trunk looked kind of roomy, and double-checked the factory specifications. Turns out it has 11.6 cubic feet of cargo volume. Guess what? The Focus hatchback has 18.5 cubic feet. OK, so much for first impressions. Actually, the Spectra has pretty decent room inside, especially for rear-seat passengers. One of my biggest complaints as a driver was the lack of visibility. Even taller folks will have a tough time seeing out the rear window.

She: One of the first things I noticed was that weird pedal noise when you hit the brakes. It's hard to describe, but it's a noise I shouldn't have heard. You step on the brakes of most domestic or Japanese products, and you don't hear anything. And while I'm on my noise rant, the Spectra had lots of wind, engine and road noise. I've heard from some consumers that they just drown out that kind of stuff with the stereo. But here's a warning: The Spectra stereo had lousy audio quality. These are all pretty big lifestyle concerns.

He: Forget about lifestyle. Let's talk about life, period. No side air bags on this baby, even though it just hit the U.S. market earlier this year. Sorry, no excuse.

She: And antilock brakes cost extra on the Spectra. Our top-of-the-line test vehicle didn't even have ABS installed as an option. What's that all about? Not a good way to cut corners in my book.

He: Let's cut right to the chase on engine power. There isn't any. Kia quotes a horsepower figure of 125 for the twin-cam 1.8-liter four-cylinder, but torque is a mere 108 pounds-feet. You can really feel the difference when you're trying to accelerate. If you're still inclined to buy the Spectra, one word of caution. Skip the automatic and go for the five-speed manual transmission. It's probably the best way to use what little juice the engine provides. And don't expect dazzling mileage. Even with t stick, the Spectra returns only 23 miles per gallon in city driving and 29 mpg on the highway.

She: Well, the Men's Dictionary says when you say "I'm hungry," you mean, "I'm hungry." When you say the Spectra gets one star, there's no reading between the lines.

2000 Kia Spectra

Anita's rating: Acceptable

Paul's rating: Subpar

Likes: Noticeable improvement in quality from past Kias. Controls are simple, easy to read.

Dislikes: Visibility is poor. No side air bags. Antilock brakes cost extra. Engine feels anemic. Doesn't stand up well next to a Ford Focus hatchback. Front-end styling is a ripoff of Ford Taurus.

Type: Front-wheel drive, five-passenger hatchback.

Price: Base, $12,995; as tested, $14,304 (incl. $450 destination charge).

Engine: 1.8-liter I-4; 125-hp; 108 lb-ft torque.

EPA fuel economy: 23 mpg city/29 mpg highway.

12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan: $1,015 (Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.)

Where built: South Korea